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Parshat Hayei Sara, 5778

November 9, 2017
Hospitality: Judaism’s Family Business
by Rabbi Irwin Huberman


It was twenty years ago that my wife and I learned from two young children one of the most important values within all of Judaism.

It’s a lesson embodied in this week’s ParashahHayei Sarah-and it may well be a central pillar of what has allowed Jewish tradition to endure and evolve over thousands of years.

I remember that chilly winter night, long before I entered the rabbinate, when the local Chabad rabbi invited my wife and me for Shabbat dinner.

We were obviously nervous.

Would we say something wrong?  Would we stumble when asked to recite the Sabbath blessings?  These questions and a dozen more like them seemed to fill the air as we made our way up our hosts’ driveway.

As we approached the front steps, the door swung open, and out flew two boys, aged nine and eleven, who grabbed our gloves and coats and hats before we’d even reached the door of the house. They yanked us into the hallway.

“Welcome, welcome, berukhim haba’im,” they chanted in unison, jumping up and down. “Welcome to our home!”

The rabbi watched all of this from the end of the hall.  He pulled me aside once the boys had finished their greeting, and whispered, “You’ll have to excuse them.  We are teaching them Hakhnasat Orhim, the welcoming of the stranger. Sometimes they get a bit too enthusiastic.”

I thought of those two boys this week as I reread this week’s Torah portion, one which entrenches Hakhnasat Orhim as one of Judaism’s principal values.

As the Parashah opens, we learn of the death of Sarah, aged one hundred twenty-seven years.

It’s not unfair to say that Sarah’s passing plunged  the nascent covenantal community into turmoil. No one knew how long Abraham would survive without her, and, with both them gone, the future of the movement they founded based on their deeds and beliefs was far from certain.

Would it be forgotten in a generation? Or was there, perhaps, hope for a future in which their son Isaac, and the generations after him, might inherit?

With this hope perhaps in his heart, Abraham sent his servant, which Midrash identifies as Eliezer, to his home territory of Haran to find a suitable bride for Isaac. In searching for a woman fit to carry on the legacy of her extraordinary mother-in-law, Abraham instructed his servant carefully, telling him to seek out one quality above all others.

In a word, “hospitality.”

In the Torah portion which we read two weeks ago, Lekh Lekha, Judaism’s first couple scrambled to secure cakes, meat, and cheese for three visiting angels who appeared at their tent.

It is then only natural that one of the primary qualities that Eliezer was told to look for in Isaac’s future wife is hospitality.

Abraham told Eliezer that the woman who will eventually marry Isaac will not only offer to draw water for him, but for his entire camel herd. Abraham was not looking for signs of faith. Rather, he sought an embodiment of care, compassion, and kindness.

When Rebekah ultimately entered Abraham’s camp, she was housed in Sarah’s tent. In this detail, the Torah appears to tell us that the two women represent similar values.

Kindness and compassion, prized by Abraham and embodied in the life’s work of Sarah and Rebekah, is the foundation of so much of what the Torah teaches us. At least thirty-six times, the Torah reminds us to be kind to the stranger, and to those in want.

The Hofetz Haim (1839-1933), a renowned rabbi and ethicist, explained that the Torah goes into such detail on this issue to teach future generations the importance of Hakhnasat Orhim. By passing the idea of hospitality from one generation to the next, the Torah teaches that, within Judaism, Hakhnasat Orhim becomes a “family business.”

The Talmud tells us in turn that Hakhnasat Orhim is a greater mitzvah than receiving a direct revelation from God (Shabbat 127A).

On that winter night, those two boys embodied Hakhnasat Orhim, and it is a lesson to us all as we raise current and future generations.

How often is it that when we enter the home of a friend or family members, that children often fail to raise their eyes from their technology devices? Perhaps in modern times, we could use a dose of Hakhnasat Orhim, a lesson which those two children exemplified so wonderfully twenty years ago.

Let us remember ourselves how good it feels to feel welcome.

Let us also remember one of the important threads joining previous Torah portions with Hayei Sarah – the life of Sarah.

For while Sarah dies at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Hakhnasat Orhim, welcoming the stranger, has ensured that the tradition of Sarah and the Jewish people continues to live, l’dor va dor, from generation to generation.


Rabbi Irwin Huberman is spiritual leader at Congregation Tifereth Israel, Glen Cove NY.